Hard to believe that this Nottinghamshire lad is still only 23 and that this is already his fourth album. For sure, the initial excitement about this precocious songwriter has died down considerably since that sparkling debut album, that ended up selling over half a million and is currently the 57th biggest selling album of this decade so far. Yes, he kind of lets himself down a bit with his On My One album of 2016, which saw Bugg fully take over in the songwriting and production departments, to less than favourable reviews. He’s man enough now to admit – albeit in a roundabout way – that it may not have been the smartest move.
But what are artists if not adventurers, both into their souls and via the music they explore and play? We all make little mistakes and half-steps, do we not? The secret is to learn from them. And this is what Bugg is doing. Not that he’ll likely ever again reach the commercial heights of his debut but, as an artist with a long future ahead of him, his career remains very viable.
Bugg is a nostalgic at heart, but a romantic with a soul that is a little dark here and there. That’s just the way we like it. It’s why he appealed so strongly across the board. He veered away from the syrup and gave us some dollops of hard reality that we all experience. It worked a treat on his first (and indeed parts of his second and third) albums and, while Hearts That Strain continues in that vein, it’s an infinitely more mature record that showcases his love for 60s and 70s music from the States. It’s a record that wears the love of artists such as Glen Campbell, Fred Neil, Don McLean and James Taylor on its sleeve, as well as hints of mid-period Elvis, classic soul and country. Recorded in Nashville, with the help of new guns Dan Auerbach and Matt Sweney, it also heavily features some Memphis old timers such as pianist Bobby Wood and drummer Gene Chrisman, whose CVs include the likes of ‘Suspicious Minds’ and Dusty Springfield’s ‘Son of a Preacher Man’.
This new approach is best exemplified by lead track ‘How Soon The Dawn’, a gorgeously lush early 70s style pop song where Bugg gets out his James Taylor voice to portray a situation where he’s pining for the break of dawn, in his mind and life. “Just look how far I fell in the wishing well… I thought I knew it all, how the mighty fall to the bottom,” he sings with light guitar flourishes, gentle drumming patterns, shimmering organ, Midnight Cowboy-esque harmonica, mellow bongos and some classic harmony ‘ooo ooo’s. If you didn’t know this was Jake Bugg, you’d think you were transplanted back to the West Coast circa 1971.
Similarly ‘Southern Rain’ is one of a number of gently rolling country-pop songs in the vein of Fred Neil and Glen Campbell, with super tasteful lap steel and mandolin providing colour and texture throughout as the mightily mellow groove moves on like a train locked into its journey. And ‘This Time’ is at first a melancholy ballad before it stretches its legs to be a minor epic of stately country-rock tropes.
Elsewhere, the darkly comic ‘In The Event of My Demise’ is all psychedelic country-pop, with a strong vocal melody line, while ‘Waiting’ is an old school soul duet with Noah Cyrus, topped off with one of those classically plaintive sax solos that served the golden era so well. And ‘The Man on Stage’ (about himself and his insecurities) veers towards the theatrical with its judicious use of piano and strings. Meanwhile, the title track itself is some kind of contemporary folk tale that again shows Bugg’s penchant for noirish melodrama, while the upbeat ‘Burn Alone’ recalls old country, but mixed in with that peculiarly Northern strain of skiffle-meets-Madchester.
There are low points, of course, such as on the rather lifeless ‘Indigo Blue’ and the closer ‘Every Colour In The World’ which musically fails to rise above the cliqued despite the promise in the title, both of these songs hinting at Bugg’s occasional propensity for songwriting inertia and insipidness.
Thankfully, these moments are few and far between. And for sure, Bugg has now almost fully shaken off the raw kitchen sink estate blues of his beginnings, with one foot in the door marked Radio 2-friendly MOR, thanks in great part to the measured and sophisticated playing of his mostly new found American friends. But the boy from Nottingham always had to move forward, if he was to grow up and be a man. The world of music has opened up many doors for him to explore himself and his life – albeit in the context of one whose roots are quickly dissipating due to a life on the road and with some money in his pocket – and the journey continues with this, perhaps his most consistent record to date and one that will not only take many of those early fans with him (as they too grow up) but almost certainly find some new fans, ones who appreciate a good old fashioned song or two.
Read our Spotlight interview with Jake Bugg: https://brightonsfinest.com/html/index.php/spotlight/2735-jake-bugg-interview-2017